Friday, December 10, 2010

Media Briefing: Tom Vilsack, Sam Kass Explain The Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act 2010

The Agriculture Secretary and Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives field questions about the child nutrition legislation President Obama will sign on Monday; It's "An absolute milestone," Kass says; "One of the most significant days, in child nutrition perhaps since 1946," Vilsack says
President Obama
will sign the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 into law on Monday, December 13, during a special ceremony at DC's Tubman Elementary School. Both the President and First Lady Michelle Obama will make remarks, and they'll be joined by Cabinet Secretaries, Members of Congress, and advocacy group leaders who worked diligently to promote and ultimately pass the legislation.

Today, Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and chef Tim Cipriano, director of food services for New Haven Public Schools, held a briefing about the details of the legislation for members of the media. (Above: Kass eats lunch with elementary school kids in Virginia, during one of the dozens of school visits he's made in the last 22 months during the development of the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign)

"Schools are now more and more on the front lines of our challenge to combat both childhood obesity, childhood hunger, and improve children’s health," Kass said. "This day, on Monday, will mark an absolute milestone and an ongoing work by this administration to ensure that our kids grow up healthy and strong, and we secure a prosperous future for our country."

"I want to acknowledge first and foremost that we would not be having this signing ceremony but for the tremendous advocacy by the First Lady with her “Let’s Move” initiative, the persistence of the President encouraging Congress to take this matter up during the lame-duck session," Sec.Vilsack said, and he also lauded Congressional leadership.

Cipriano has been among the group of chef advisers who have worked closely with the White House to develop the Chefs Move to Schools initiative, and he has profoundly changed the food service for public schools in New Haven, which serves more than 100,000 kids daily. He was on the call to give background on how the new legislation can directly impact schools, with a first-hand POV. Reporters asked a range of questions, from Sarah Palin's criticism and the mythic ban on bake sales under the new legislation to how much of an impact the new 6 cent reimbursement rate can actually have. Kass, Vilsack, and Cipriano each made opening remarks.

>A summary of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 is here.

The full transcript of the briefing, with emphasis in bold:

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us today on our call on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which the President is going to sign into law on Monday morning.

We have on the call Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Sam Kass, who’s a Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives here at the White House; and Tim Cipriano, who’s the Executive Director of Food Services for New Haven public schools. This call is on the record and there is not an embargo.

So with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Vilsack.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, thank you very much, and thanks to everybody who’s on the phone. On Monday, December 13th, it’s going to be a very significant day, if not one of the most significant days, in child nutrition perhaps since 1946 when the School Lunch Act was enacted by President Truman. It’s an opportunity for us to see the signing of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010.

And I want to acknowledge first and foremost that we would not be having this signing ceremony but for the tremendous advocacy by the First Lady with her “Let’s Move” initiative, the persistence of the President encouraging Congress to take this matter up during the lame-duck session, and the congressional leadership including Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid as well as Chairman Miller, Chairwoman DeLauro, Senators Lincoln and Chambliss and others.

It’s a great day for kids. And it will be a great opportunity for us to improve nutrition: to focus on the twin issues of childhood obesity and hunger in this country; to increase access to good, quality programs in our schools; to address the nutritional needs of our youngsters; and to increase the monitoring and integrity of the program.

So I want to go into some specifics before turning it over to Sam Kass.

More funding, USDA authority to set nutrition standards, more farm to school networks, more school gardens
When we say we’re going to improve nutrition and focus on reducing childhood obesity and address the hunger issue, the bill will give USDA additional funding that in turn will be given to schools that will allow them to update their nutritional standards for federally subsidized lunches. This is an historic investment. It’s the first real reimbursement rate increase in over 30 years.

At the same time, the bill is also going to give USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods that are regularly sold in schools during the school day. This would include vending machines, the a la carte lunch lines, and school stores.

We’re going to make the local-farm-to-school-network stronger, and we’re going to encourage the creation of school gardens, which will ensure that more local foods are used in the school setting. We’re going to continue to improve on our nutritional quality of the commodities that we provide from USDA. And we’re also going to look for ways to expand access to quality drinking water in schools during mealtime.

We’re also going to focus, by virtue of the law, in setting standards for school wellness policies, which will include goals for not only nutrition promotion but also physical activity, which is a very important consideration when dealing with obesity.

We’re going to take a look at ways in which we can expand support for breastfeeding through the WIC program, all of that designed to create far better nutrition for youngsters, particularly in their early years.

Part of this bill will also allow us to increase the number of children who will be eligible for school meals by approximately 115,000 students as we use methods to directly certify children who are already qualified under other programs like Medicaid. This is going to help us provide more universal access for eligible students, particularly in high-poverty areas, by making it easier for schools to provide free and reduced lunch to youngsters, eliminating some of the administrative burden, and allowing them to re-shift those resources into improving the quality of meals.

And finally we’re going to make sure that school districts abide by the standards and the requirements, for they’re going to be audited on a frequent basis. We’re going to provide information to schools and require them to make that information about nutrition available to parents so that parents are better informed about what’s going on with reference to school meals and their children. We’re going to continue to look for ways to improve the safety of school foods by improving recall procedures. And the bill is going to allow us to provide additional resources for training and technical assistance for school food service providers.

This is a comprehensive and significant investment in the nutrition for youngsters. It will help us begin to combat more effectively childhood obesity and to respond to the challenge of childhood hunger.

To put this in perspective, when you look at the number of youngsters who are hungry, one out of every four children living in food-insecure homes today, and you look at the rates of obesity, one-third of our children at risk of being obese or in fact obese, you can then say more than half of our children are either hungry or are obese or at risk of being obese. That is something that this President was very insistent on responding to and reversing, and this bill and the resources and the powers provided under it are going to allow USDA to be much more effective and much more aggressive in responding to those two challenges for America’s kids.

So I'm looking forward to the bill signing because it’s going to be a great day for 32 million youngsters who are currently being fed in a variety of school food programs.

With that I'd like to turn it over to another person who is responsible for this day. And Sam Kass has been a strong advocate in the White House, traveling all over the country expressing the need for a greater commitment to nutrition and physical activity. And Sam, thanks for your efforts.

Sam.

MR. KASS: Thank you, Secretary Vilsack, and everybody who’s on the call. Secretary, a thanks -- a special thanks to you and your entire department who has worked tirelessly to see this bill come to fruition. And if it weren’t for your efforts, we would not be here today, so thank you for all of your work.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is an absolute critical step in reducing hunger during the school day and promoting sound nutrition for all children. Increasingly we see schools are playing a central role in children’s health with over 31 million children who receive school meals.

Many of these kids are receiving most if not all of their calories at school. And with the numbers that Secretary Vilsack pointed out, with 17 million children in this country either food-insecure, and one in three children overweight or obese, with the CDC now predicting that by that 2050, one in three Americans will have diabetes, schools are now more and more on the front lines of our challenge to combat both childhood obesity, childhood hunger, and improve children’s health.

It’s because of this that the First Lady identified this bill as an absolute top priority for her “Let’s Move” initiative. She knows that parents across the country are working hard to provide nutritious food for their children at home, and knew that it was up to us to help improve the food that they were getting in schools.

As the Secretary pointed out, this legislation will provide significant improvements to the food options available to kids in school and help teach them healthy habits that can last a lifetime. We know that if we take care of our kids now, empowering them to live longer and healthier lives, they will thrive and be more productive as adults.

It cannot be overstated how important the passage of the bill is when we set standards that now apply to all foods sold in schools. This means that vending machines, for the first time, will have nutrition standards, a la carte lines, and school stores.

Healthier foods in schools
You will see in school lunch, because of this legislation, it will include more whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk, more fruits and more vegetables. And this bill will help establish connections with local farms to teach kids where food comes from and how it grows, and to strengthen those connections and help support local economies.

In addition to increasing the quality of school meals, increasing the access is absolutely critical, because the kids who need nutritious meals most often don’t have access to them.

This day, on Monday, will mark an absolute milestone and an ongoing work by this administration to ensure that our kids grow up healthy and strong, and we secure a prosperous future for our country.

So to all that are on the call, I thank you. For all the people who have done work on this, we thank you.

And I want to turn it over to Tim Cipriano, who is the Executive Director of the New Haven school meal program, and he has been a staunch advocate to help provide nutritious meals for kids in New Haven, and he has been an outspoken voice and a leader in this.

So, Tim, thank you for all your work, and I turn it over to you.

MR. CIPRIANO: Thank you, Chef. It’s a pleasure working with you. Good afternoon, everybody.

In New Haven, Connecticut, over 80 percent of our children qualify for free and reduced meals. One in four children lack access to these nutritious meals.

The meals we serve in our schools for some children are the only meals of the day. So we strive to serve the most nutritious possible meals.

I'd like to thank the President and the First Lady for making childhood nutrition a top priority. Through their leadership and commitment, we now have the first significant change in school meals in 30 years. This legislation is historic and it will allow me to continue to offer more real foods to the kids in our schools.

Improving access
Childhood obesity and childhood hunger go hand in hand. With the new competitive grant process for states to carry out strategies to end childhood hunger, we will begin to see a decrease in obesity in our schools. Our kids aren’t hungry because we lack food or because of a lack of food and nutrition programs. They are hungry because they lack access to these programs and to the nutritious foods they need to grow and thrive.

In Connecticut, one in three eligible students participate in school breakfast programs. These numbers are some of the lowest in the country. With additional resources available, we will be able to soon feed breakfast to more children in our schools in Connecticut. More kids eating breakfast equates to more kids learning and paying attention in class, and that equates to smarter kids down the road.

Lastly, resources for farm-to-school will increase the amount of local foods being served in schools. This is of great importance to me as the local food dude to continue educating children where the food comes from. My favorite story in our school gardens is of one child who popped a Sun Gold tomato into his mouth. That little tomato can change a whole generation of kids.

Thank you to Secretary Vilsack and to Sam Kass for the opportunity to speak on this call. Everybody make it a great day.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you, and we can now take questions.

Q A couple of questions. One, as I understand it, it’s a six-cent boost. Can you put that in perspective? It’s not very much, it seems, on its face.

And number two, I heard that Sarah Palin has been bringing cookies to school and saying the bill bans cookies, if you could address that.

ED. NOTE: Palin brought cookies to one speaking engagement, at Plumstead Christan Academy in Pennsylvania, to make the point that parents should decide what children eat--not schools, and not the federal government

SECRETARY VILSACK: This is Tom Vilsack. I'll take a stab at it. When you start multiplying six cents by the number of children in a school system by the number of days in a school year, you really do begin to get significant resources. This is a $4.5 billion, over a 10-year period, investment in child nutrition. So this is real resources, which will make a real difference. School lunch officials and school meal officials do a very good job of purchasing food in a very significant way and a very smart way and are able to stretch dollars very effectively.

In addition to the six-cent reimbursement, which was the first real reimbursement in the rate -- increase in the rate in 30 years, we’re also making, for many schools, the administration of this program easier, so the hope is that they’ll be able to shift resources that are currently being used to spend -- that are spent on administration and shift it to increased and improved nutrition, more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. So we do think it’s going to make a significant difference.

As to Governor Palin’s comments, it’s the old adage of it would be interesting for folks to read the bill. The bill doesn’t ban cookies. It doesn’t ban bake sales. What it does do is it provides the USDA with the capacity to establish nutritional standards for vending machines, a la carte lines, and for the regular lines for meals and activities that take place during the school day.

There will be activities after school that will not necessarily be involved or in the rubric of this bill. And there are opportunities for USDA to acknowledge that there are nutritious snacks that can be made that are tasty.

I happened to be in a school in Colorado not long ago, where I was given a brownie. And it was a very delicious treat. I was told that it was very high in protein, because it was made with black beans. So, I mean there are an awful lot of ways in which creative chefs are making school lunches and school breakfasts appealing and nutritious.

And it’s unfortunate that folks would want to mischaracterize the scope of this bill. This bill is about improving the lives of children, the health of children, the educational achievement of children.

Q I had a question about the competitive grant process for states. Could you go a little bit into what the criteria they would have to meet in order to qualify for the grant funding?

And also, is there a provision for ease of qualification for students? I know that it was mentioned that a certain percentage of students qualify for reduced or small lunch. Is there any changes to those qualifications? Or are you talking about for the administrative burden for schools to get the funding?

SECRETARY VILSACK: This is Tom Vilsack again. I’ll try to answer the issue of administrative ease.

Many school districts are located in areas where there is a very, very high percentage of people who are at or below the poverty line. Currently, those schools require a rather extensive effort on the part of children and their parents to be able to provide the school with basic information about the parent’s income to determine whether or not a youngster is free or reduced lunch eligible.

What this bill will provide is more opportunities for us to use Census information and other information to determine those school districts where there is a high predominance of families whose children would qualify for free and reduced lunch. And that would allow us to essentially eliminate, or substantially reduce, the amount of administrative burden that schools have. There may not be the necessity of a youngster taking an application home for the parents. They may just basically have a blanket acknowledgment of free and reduced, based on Census information.

In those schools that are located in districts where that’s not the case, we’re also looking for ways in which we can make it easier for schools by having what is called direct certification. If parents already qualify their children under Medicaid, for example, or other types of assistance programs where the eligibility requirements are essentially the same as free and reduced lunch, then those youngsters will already be included. They will be directly certified. They will already be included. They won’t have to go through the application process.

This should substantially reduce the amount of paper that is pushed through this process and, in doing so, should substantially reduce the amount of staff time associated with it. Those staff hours could be redirected somewhere else to perhaps somebody preparing meals fresh from start. Maybe those resources could be directed in increasing the nutritional value of the meal -- the food being purchased by the school district. Obviously, individual school districts will have to make a decision about that.

In terms of the competitive grants, I mean, really what we’re interested in is we’re interested in making sure that states are addressing a number of issues relating to hungry kids. Those periods of time when kids are not in school represent a real challenge for us, in terms of making sure that kids continue to have nutritious snacks, nutritious meals.

And so we’re encouraging states, through a series of competitive efforts, to come up with the best practices, the best ideas, to make sure that these youngsters are fed on weekends during summer school or summer vacation. And the best ideas will then create a stable of best practices that can then be used throughout the country in an effort to try to close those gaps.

Q How will this bill help reduce competitive food sources in schools? If someone can just specifically clarify that for me.

SECRETARY VILSACK: This is Tom Vilsack again. Basically, essentially what we’re doing is the bill directs the USDA to establish nutritional standards. And in those nutritional standards we want consistency in terms of what Tim and folks like Tim are required to provide for youngsters at school lunch -- the lunch line, and the a la carte line, and vending machines, primarily.

And so what we want to is make the healthy choice the easiest and best choice. We know that when we change the character of foods that are sold in vending machines, the snacks in vending machines, when we take out the sugary snacks and we take out the snacks that are very high in calorie but low in nutrition, and replace them with nutritious snacks that are low in sugar and low in sodium but high in nutritional value, we know that those snacks will still be purchased by youngsters. We have enough evidence throughout the country to show that it’s not going to substantially reduce the use of vending machines or the income that's generated from those vending machines for schools or for special activities. We just simply want to make the healthy choice the easy choice for youngsters, and they will make that choice.

And we want consistency. We don't want to encourage youngsters with the better education and better understanding of foods that they’re eating to have a great lunch or a great a la carte line, only to walk down the hall and have a vending machine that basically sends a different type of message. And so -- consistency and a promotion of nutritional quality in calories that are very nutritionally intense.

What we find is that youngsters can consume anywhere from a third or a half of their calories in a day in school settings. And so we want to make sure that they get the biggest nutritional bang for the buck.

ED. NOTE: Processed "junk foods" have an astonishingly long shelf life. There was no mention of a time line for these being removed from schools.

Q Yes, I was just wondering how -- what the steps are for school audits and how often those will be done and when exactly those will start, when we’ll see these changes in our school systems.

MR. CIPRIANO: The audit process is one that's ongoing now. This just provides greater consistency and requires us to audit every three years.

And there’s a variety of reasons for auditing. It’s obviously -- we're going to be interested in making sure school districts are living up to the standards that we're setting for nutrition and that they are managing and administering the program appropriately in terms of making sure that kids who are qualified for the program have access to it, and kids who are coming from families that are more fortunate and better off are not necessarily being subsidized, if you will, by the program, but are basically paying their fair share.

Q Yes, Mr. Secretary, a couple of questions. One is on the (inaudible) issue, the reimbursement, because you know there’s concern from a number of schools, including in your own state, about this. When and how will that be implemented? ... It won’t necessarily mean more money -- and spend on food that may be shifting around in the budget. How and when is that going to be implemented and over what time frame?

And also on the cookie issue, just to clarify, are you going to be setting standards that will affect what parents can bring in for a party or something? That issue has been brought up. And when do you expect these standards to be? What’s your time frame for getting those -- the nutritional standards for school?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Phillip, I'm not going to be able to give you a specific time frame. Obviously there are rules and regulations that have to be met after the President signs the bill. I will tell you that it’s our intent to get these rules and regulations started as quickly as possible.

We've already been working, consistent with the instructions, the directions from Congress, on nutritional standards, so those will probably be the first to come out and they’ll probably come out reasonably soon -- standards that basically suggest that what we want is consistency with our dietary guidelines. ED. NOTE: The new Dietary Guidelines for 2010 will be released "shortly."

As it relates to the parents, we're not trying to prevent parents from bringing cupcakes or treats during the school day if there’s a special event or special occasion. That's clearly not what we're talking about here. What we are talking about is the a la carte line, the vending machines and the regular school lunch line; that we have some consistency. Those are going to be the areas most often used by kids and we just want to make sure there’s consistency.

I mean, kids will need snacks -- that they will -- obviously as we do a better job of nutritional education in this country, kids are going to understand the difference between sometimes snacks and everyday snacks. And what we want is to make sure that the healthy choice is the easy choice, as I said before.

And as far as the reimbursement rates are concerned, our hope and belief is that school districts will respond. The reality is that, as Tim indicated, hungry kids don't learn very well. Kids who are dealing with weight issues often have self-image issues, which may impact and affect their educational achievement. And I would certainly hope that given the recent reports of where the United States stands relative to other countries, that we recognize that we are in a very difficult competition.

To have the smartest, most creative kids on Earth to be able to compete effectively in the global economy, we cannot afford to have a third of our youngsters being obese and taking obesity into adulthood, and as Sam indicated, having diabetes and incurring health care expenses associated with chronic diseases like that. These can be avoided. These can be reduced. These can be completely avoided by healthy lifestyles. And it’s in the best interest of youngsters and the best interests of the future of this country that we do it.

And as you know, there are retired generals and admirals that are deeply concerned about, from a national security perspective, that we will not have enough youngsters to draw from for a volunteer military. ED. NOTE: Check out Mission: Readiness for reports on the percentage of America's youth who do not qualify for military service due to weight issues

Today only 25 percent of kids 19-24 years of age qualify or are fit for service for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they can’t physically do what’s required.

So this is a call to action. And the President understood and appreciated that, which is why he encouraged Congress to take this matter up as a priority issue in the lame duck, and we’re thankful for it. And it’s why the First Lady has been so -- is so adamant about this and so passionate about it, because she understands that the future of the country is somewhat connected to this.

So we’re going to do what we can as quickly as we can, as effectively and comprehensively as we can, and we hope that we have a partnership with schools to be able to respond.

And I might ask Tim about his attitude about this. My feeling is that schools are appreciative of the reimbursement rate, and will put it to good use.

Tim, am I totally off base on that?

MR. CIPRIANO: No, you’re absolutely correct. Every little bit counts. We have -- some of us -- some school districts are so far ahead of the curve, where others are learning to get up to the curve. And this bill is going to allow for everybody to be on the same plane and really start working together. And this administration has really started to form a giant teamwork initiative, and that’s really what’s going to help propel this to new heights.

Q You mentioned, Secretary Vilsack, that one in four kids are food-insecure and one in three at risk of -- for obesity or are already obese. There’s a lot of overlap among those kids, I presume. Can you say -- does anybody know how many kids we’re talking about?

And the other question I had is for Mr. Cipriano. Can you talk in any specific way about what six cents a meal might mean for your students?

MR. CIPRIANO: Sure. Yes, this is Chef Tim. I can start. Six cents a meal equates to a lot more money than we currently have now. We are continually offering new and exciting nutritious foods to our kids. We do a lot with sweet potatoes. We bake these awesome, hot, sweet potato fries, and we have them on once or twice a month. But with an additional six-cent reimbursement, for every lunch served we can add these sweet potato fries or sweet potato chips on a couple more times a month, or we can increase the amount of mashed potatoes that we make from scratch in our kitchen.

We work a lot with local foods. In 2010, we purchased over 150,000 pounds of Connecticut-grown produce. And we buy Connecticut-grown produce because it’s local to us, and find the local stuff is a lot less expensive than buying the mainstream produce out there. So we can take six cents and really make a difference.

We can buy local fruits for 15 cents versus buying a conventional fruit on the open market. So that’s an additional serving or two of fruit a week.

So it’s significantly -- going to make a significant difference and really change the scope of school meal programs. Cipriano's point: An increase of 6 cents per meal is a lot of money, when scaled large.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I might add to that we have a recipe contest that ends this month where we’re challenging chefs and folks from all over the country to take a look at the reimbursement rate as it exists today and come up with a recipe for a meal based on that reimbursement rate. And we’re anticipating some very creative and thoughtful recipes. It will allow chefs and school lunch officials to stretch these dollars in a very creative and interesting way.

We’re seeing this all over the country. And again, if you start multiplying six cents by the number of children in school by the number of school days, you really are talking about resources that allow them to do a better job from a nutritional standpoint. And so we’re obviously very interested in promoting that.

And Tim, you did such a good job answering that question, I’ve forgotten the first part of the question, but I think it has to do with the number of kids who are hungry or obese. I can tell you that 17 million children live in food-insecure homes, and even if there is a -- even if all of those kids are in the obese or at risk of being obese category, it’s still a tremendous number of youngsters. We know that there are a half a million kids who are in very, very low food security homes, which means that they are likely missing meals at some point in time during the month. ED. NOTE: Check out USDA's report Household Food Security In The United States 2009

So we’re not talking about a handful of youngsters. We’re talking about millions and millions of America’s children, and they represent 100 percent of our future. And this is no small matter. This is a very, very important and significant and historic piece of legislation that Congress has put through, and it will have a significant impact for millions of kids. And that's why I’m so proud of the efforts of the First Lady and the President and Congress in getting this done.

MODERATOR: Thank you, and thank you all for being on the call today. If you have any questions, please feel free to follow up with us. Thank you.

END 2:37 P.M. EST
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*USDA photo